Directed by David Mackenzie
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham
Runtime: 102 minutes
The bank robber has been a mainstay in American film for over a century, starting (sort of) with The Great Train Robbery in 1903 (trains hauling payrolls and transporting cash were like mobile banks) and they saw their epitome in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. Films don’t often revisit the bank robber these days, with the exception of Point Break in 1991 and Heat in 1995. Now we get a film that taps into the spirit of Bonnie and Clyde, with the ‘morals’ of Heat and the anger against the banking system we saw in The Big Short. Hell or High Water combines action, humor, guilt, friendship, determination and duty into an impressive film that never takes itself too seriously while at the same time never lets you forget the seriousness of the events portrayed.
Chris Pine plays Toby Howard, a divorced father of two boys who just spent the last several years taking care of his ailing mother until her death. She took out a reverse mortgage on her ranch that is coming due just as an oil company has completed a geological survey and determined there is a lot of oil on the land. Toby enlists his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster), who has been in prison numerous times for bank robbery and for killing their father. Toby’s plan is to rob the bank branches of the bank that owns the reverse mortgage, building up enough to pay it off and save the ranch while signing with the oil company to drill on the land and give it to his boys so they don’t have to grow up poor.
On their trail is soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton has the pair figured by their second bank and starts working out where they’ll strike next, always a step behind the brothers but gaining ground all the time.
Screenwriter Tayler Sheridan, an actor best known for his work on Sons of Anarchy but also for his excellent screenplay for Sicario (which was his first produced script), balances out the time we spend with each pair, getting to know the characters and their dynamics with each other. While he uses a broad brush for some of the characterization, he also works with subtle nuance that fills out each individual, making them whole. He’s quick with humor, much more so here than he was in Sicario, letting us laugh along with Toby and Tanner and especially Hamilton and Parker. The connection he builds with the Rangers is fantastic, giving their partnership a lived-in feeling, letting us know that they’ve been working together for a very long time and despite spats, they care for each other a great deal. Sheridan is also cautious with his suspense and frugal with his action. He lets the characters drive the story, not the robberies or gunfights and you feel it when a character dies.
Directing is David Mackenzie, known for a little British indie prison film Starred Up from 2013 that was little seen over here but critically acclaimed. Mackenzie is cautious with his framing, keeping us as close to the characters as possible, keeping it intimate without making it claustrophobic. In doing so, he makes the film personal, involving us with each aspect of both the robberies and the hunt.
While it’s always nice to see Bridges get to stretch his wings and inhabit a man as unique as Hamilton, taking him down a path that is like the more casual version of his Rooster Cogburn, it is even nicer to see Pine get to work outside the constraints of Captain Kirk and do some really good work. Pine is visibly invested in Toby and you can see the pain on his face and the struggle he’s going through to give his sons a better life than he had or they would have likely been able to achieve without his actions. I hope Pine gets more roles like this, as he is very well suited for them. Birmingham gives a solid performance as well, playing off Bridges expertly and Foster matches the bar set by the rest of the cast.
Hell or High Water isn’t a morality play or a commentary on the banking collapse, though it does have some stinging things to say about predatory banks. That stuff is a backdrop for an intensely personal story that doesn’t limit the viewpoint to just the robbers or the law enforcement but balances it between the two, making it personal for both (most notably the ending). It’s a simple but nuanced film that is a great showcase for the actors and filmmakers alike, featuring excellent performances, a fantastic screenplay and artful direction, all of which are award worthy.